O’Brien: ‘I Don’t Shy Away from Race Questions’
A chat with CNN anchor and ‘Black in America’ host Soledad O’Brien.
UrbanFaith: How did the idea for the Black in America series come about?
Soledad O’Brien: The Black in America series started in 2008. The executives at CNN were interested in doing some kind of special on the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The question was: Where are we today 40 years later? So the first part was a two-hour documentary on Dr. King’s assassination and then the next four hours were about the state of Black America. That was so wildly successful that we began to say, “There were so many things we didn’t get in or couldn’t get in—our scope was very narrow at that point—what’s the next story we want to tell? And what’s the next story after that and the next one after that? The series has been incredibly successful and we’ve gotten a lot of support.
Why do you think CNN has been so committed to the project?
We were all stunned by how wildly successful it was, not just in terms of “Wow! That was a great thing to do.” Not even in terms of “Wow! That was a great story.” It was a ratings power house.
Why do you think people have connected with the series? Is it because of changing demographics?
Partly changing demographics. Partly those stories are just never done. I think people wanted to dig into stories about race and ethnicity. Also, remember, a guy named Barack Obama had decided he was going to run for president. People were very interested in discussing race, ethnicity, and place. Is racism dead? Are we post-racism, etc.? So, I think it was just a good time to have those conversations. We’ve always tried to stay on the forefront of those conversations and push what I think are sometimes uncomfortable and awkward questions. Respectful, but blunt ways of asking people about things that are happening in modern day society.
Does being a biracial person give you the confidence to ask those questions?
I think that helps, yeah. I certainly don’t shy away from questions of race and ethnicity. I also can ask questions to people who are working mothers that other people might say, “Well, let me frame this the right way, and I hope I’m not offending you if I ask?” I know the mind of a working mother very well, and so I think that there are certainly insights and perspectives that I can bring that maybe other people would not bring. I think also people understand where I’m coming from when I ask the question.
I read that your parents are Catholic. Were you raised Catholic?
I was and I was named after the Virgin Mary. María de la Soledad means Virgin Mary.
Are you a person of faith as well?
I am, yeah.
How does your faith inform your life or strengthen you to do your work?
I don’t think that I could do the job that I do and not be a person of faith. When you walk around Haiti or in the aftermath of whatever fishing village is left behind after a tsunami, and you’re sort of walking around thinking: Why has this happened? Why did all this people die? Why is there poverty to this depth? All of these kids I’m doing a story on today, half of them won’t be here tomorrow because they will have perished. I think that you don’t have a lot to fall back on except your faith and the sense that there is a lot of good in the world.
I see that in action all the time. I remember in Haiti watching a woman in a tent city that formed right outside of our hotel where we were staged and we had set up our satellite dish. She would get up and sweep in front of their tent. Forty thousand people were in the tent city. I read that as, “I’m a human being.”
There’s this tremendous struggle, especially in the wake of a disaster, to show and express their humanity. I saw it in New Orleans as well. I think you have to be a person of faith to appreciate that and move forward in doing what I do in the other part of my job, which is breaking news. Otherwise, you just have to go home and never get out of bed.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.